My former colleague Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times wrote a column this week about men who are reacting to recent sexual harassment scandals by limiting their professional contact with women, and that this is limiting some women’s career opportunities.
“Some [tech investors] are avoiding solo meetings with female entrepreneurs, potential recruits and those who ask for an informational or networking meeting.
“Before, you might have said, ‘Of course I would do that, and I will especially do it for minorities, including women in Silicon Valley,’ the investor said. ‘Now you cancel it because you have huge reputational risk all of a sudden.'”
This is an unfortunate reaction to the increasing focus on harassment in the workplace, and it’s unfair to women in male-dominated industries. But these powerful men’s impulse to avoid such meetings — and the impulses of junior women whom Miller notes also may avoid such meetings because of their own concerns about appearances — require more than just the hand wave of “don’t harass women, it’s simple.”
Appearances of impropriety are a real thing, and men and women need to find ways to avoid them without disadvantaging women relative to men in the office. The responsibility for this falls on men in positions of power in industry.
Overbroad rules like Vice President Mike Pence’s — Pence won’t even have lunch alone with a woman — make it essentially impossible to afford women the same access as men in industries where interpersonal connections are important, which is most industries. It is not hard to have a business lunch that outwardly projects professionalism, and it should be a professional expectation that men and women can do this with colleagues of both sexes.
But there are industries with cultures that involve after-hours social activities that blur the lines between business and leisure and can easily appear inappropriate for colleagues who could be suspected of sexual involvement.
Instead of excluding women with boys-club rules around these activities, and instead of just telling men and women to go out and drink and have fun but be professional, it’s worth reconsidering these cultures broadly. If your industry’s culture involves evening activities that can create appearances of impropriety, does it also involve too much drinking altogether? Probably, yes.
Stronger norms of professional behaviour, more formal office cultures, and clearer separations between the personal and the professional could reduce opportunities for sexual misconduct while also discouraging problem drinking and otherwise making professional life healthier for industry participants — men and women. Formal norms about how colleagues interact make it harder for a harasser to act like his behaviour is “just the way things are done in the industry.”
Deemphasizing after-hours socialising as a means of career advancement could also help break up industry social networks in which men mentor other men they get to know who remind them of themselves. Plus, it would give us all more time to hang out with our friends and families instead of our coworkers.
Of course, junior women in an industry don’t get to set its norms. But executives — most of them men — have the power to set expectations about professionalism and formality, not to mention about harassment.
As I wrote this morning, while not everyone knew exactly what Harvey Weinstein was up to, his nasty and unprofessional public behaviour toward employees and colleagues was widely known and should have been enough to have him shunned.
If industry norms in Hollywood had prevented Weinstein from doing big movie deals while publicly treating so many people around him so badly — if he had been expected to meet even minimal standards of professional behaviour — it would have been much harder for him to get away with what he is alleged to have done.
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